Gigi’s Playhouse: A Mom Ignites a Nationwide Movement to Empower, Educate, and Inspire Children and Others with Down Syndrome

By Nancy Gianni, Founder, Gigi's Playhouse

Organization name – GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers

Location – Hoffman Estates, Illinois

Mission – To change the way the world views Down syndrome through educational programs and the empowerment of individuals with Down syndrome, their families, and the community.

Completion Date – October 2013

More information –

Shortly after Gigi was born, Ilike any parentknew my life had changed forever. remember how afraid I waof the awesome responsibility that lie ahead of me: caring for and raising a human being for the rest of my lifeBut compared to most parents, I was afraid for different reasons

Doctors diagnosed Gigi with Down syndrome within an hour of her birth. My fear and sense of devastation heightened with everything they told me about the condition. The syndrome, and its impacts on Gigi and our family… it all sounded so negative! I was terrified of bringing Gigi home, of trying to adjust to our new normal. It wasn’t easy at first. Visitors would give us hugs of sympathy rather than congratulations; they sometimes even expressed their condolencesSome were afraid to look inside her bassinet, perhaps worried they might see something other than the beautiful little baby she was

Our first Down syndrome support group meeting was crammed into  the corner of a sterile room at the local hospital. While the meeting itself was valuable, I couldn’t help but wonder why there was no place dedicated to helping families of children with Down syndrome—a warm, welcoming, celebratory place that could give them the resources and networking opportunities they needed.

From that very moment, it became my personal and professional mission to make a positive difference, and to change the way the world views Gigi and others with Down syndrome. Within five months, my family and I opened the world’s first Down syndrome awareness and achievement center in Schaumberg, Illinois, naming it in Gigi’s honor. Thirteen years later, I’m proud to say that there are now 31 Gigi’s Playhouses across the country and in Mexico, and nine more are opening in 2017.

As the Chief Belief Officer of Gigi’s Playhouse (and, of course, as Gigi’s Mom), I know firsthand how important it is to empower individuals with Down syndromeand to educate friends, family, and the greater community about the promise, potential, and contributions of these amazing members of our society. Our Playhouses offer free therapeutic and educational programs to foster a world where babies, children, teenagers, and adults with Down syndrome are accepted and embraced by their families, schools, and communities.

These programs include parent networking opportunities, support groups, educational and social activities, speech development curricula, and motor coordination exercises—all in unique places that make what we do fun! And, yes, thanks to a dedicated staff and volunteer community, along with the generous monetary, product, and service donations of some pretty incredible companies, organizations, and individuals, we provide our programs to families and community members at no cost.

One such company was Perkins&Will, whose team of extraordinary designers committed their time and expertise to creating a new flagship home for Gigi’s Playhouse in Hoffman Estates, IllinoisThe design of our space was critical to unlocking the potential of the individuals that use it. From a kitchen for teaching food preparation, to a classroom for speech pathology, to a stage for performances, to a gym for establishing fitness habits, Perkins&Will went above and beyond to “Gigi-fy” our space. The replicability of the design also allowed us create continuity and consistency from one Playhouse to the nextthere are now hallmark design aspects in all 30 Gigi’s Playhouses worldwide.

The design results have been nothing short of successful. One of our 7-year-old members started her school year reading at a higher level than her typical developing classmates because she used Gigi’s literacy program in our specially designed learning labs. Several of our adult memberare sought-after public speakers, having learned to deliver speeches and other presentations on our custom-designed stage. Not too long ago, the mother of a child with Down syndrome came by our Playhouse alone, simply because she needed a moment to herself and knew this was a safe place to go. And, as for Gigi, she has excelled by leaps and bounds, and is doing amazing things like singing the national anthem in front of a packed house at Chicago’s Sears Centre Arena. At 14 years old, she is setting goals, and achieving them. 

To say this has all been a dream come true is cliché, but it’s honest. What started out as a nightmare for one mom in Illinois quickly became a personal life goal, and has now flowered into an international movement to change the way the world sees Down syndrome. Every family that walks through our doors feels the impact of what we do here, and it would not have been possible had it not been for the creativity, compassion, and generosity of Perkins&Will.